Some things never change. Just as youngsters today do, kids in the 1940’s loved soda pop. Many modern cola drinks flourished during the Depression and war years: Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola, and Royal Crown Cola were all big during the Forties. Other brands were big sellers during the war years but are minor players today; although Moxie was popular enough to become a slang term in the American lexicon during the pre-war period, that soft drink is largely forgotten these days (although it’s still available in the Northeastern U.S.).

And then there was Kooba Cola. Good ol’ Kooba! Cold, refreshing, tasty, and good for you, packed full of Vitamin B! The company was so sure their product would be a hit with kids that they even gave away free samples, as this ad from Weird Comics #1 (April 1940) illustrates:

Vintage Kooba Cola ad - 1940's

What’s that you say? You never heard of Kooba Cola? Come on! There were ads for it in lots of comic books: Weird Comics, Mystery Man Comics, Wonderworld Comics…Kooba even sponsored the Blue Beetle radio show!

And that’s where you might start to smell a rat if you’re fairly knowledgeable on the subject of Golden Age Comics. All of the titles I mentioned were published by Fox Publications, one of the more controversial publishers of the era — and The Blue Beetle was a Fox character.

Victor Fox had, at one time, kept the books for Detective Comics which, at that time, was Superman’s publishing company. Fox saw the early sales numbers after Supes was first introduced and realized there might be some serious money to be made in the “costumed hero” business. So he quit his job at DC and started his own publishing company. He didn’t keep “in house” artists, but instead farmed out the work to studios. Fox asked Will Eisner (of The Spirit fame) to create a Superman-type character, and Eisner’s studio obliged with Wonder Man:

Wonder Comics #1, May 1939

…who debuted in Wonder Comics #1 (May, 1939). Wonder Man didn’t look much like Superman, but he was, for all intents and purposes, the same character, endowed with super-strength, invulnerability, the ability to leap great distances. And in a market which wasn’t yet hip-deep in costumed adventurer characters, DC definitely noticed the resemblance. So they sent their ex-employee Victor Fox a “cease and desist” letter, and Wonder Man was gone after just a single appearance.

That little tale will give you a glimpse into who Victor Fox was at his core: a guy who was great at coming up with ideas to make money – unfortunately, they were usually somebody else’s ideas.

In the 1940’s comics and soda pop went hand in hand together. We need to remember that “comics shops” didn’t exist back then – hell, there weren’t even 7-11s! Comics were sold at newsstands and “mom and pop” soda shops. As late as the 1970’s you could still buy comics at “soda fountains”. In my hometown we had a downtown soda shop called Cromer’s, which had a huge comics selection — Mom and Pop Cromer never sent comics back to the distributor, so a comic would potentially stay on the rack forever until somebody bought it. So, for example, when I started reading Marvel’s Doctor Strange in early 1976 and came into the story somewhere in the middle, I pedaled my bike down to Cromer’s in a successful hunt for back issues so I could get a “running start” into the story. Cromers’ was jam-packed with every small item you could think of, very cramped and crowded, but they still kept a small four stool counter and soda fountain. The mirror behind the fountain was festooned with scores of class photos of neighborhood kids, including yellowed photos going the whole way back to the 1950’s. In fact, the store still had merchandise which went back that far – I once saw a plastic pack of girls’ bobby socks hanging on a peg, twenty years after they’d gone out of style.

I miss places like Cromer’s; you could always find lots of cool stuff (and great back issues of comics) in them…

Victor Fox was well aware of the comics/cola connection, so he decided to go into the soda pop business. He created a product called Kooba Cola and began marketing it in the comics his company published. Kooba even became the major sponsor of the short-lived Blue Beetle radio program. Comic book ads promised a free 12 oz. bottle of Kooba (“Enough for two!”) if you cut out the coupon and presented it to the owner of the soda shop where you bought your copy of Fantastic or Science. But there was one problem…

Not a single bottle of Kooba Cola was actually produced. Ever.

Fox was no fool. He realized that he could sink a ton of cash into this project and easily never see a dime in profit. So he figured he’d go about it in reverse – drum up the demand and then create the supply. There was no “secret formula” for Kooba, either – there was no formula at all. Fox’s “free Kooba” coupons were good for a “free prize” if your local shop didn’t have the soda (which they didn’t) – just mail your coupon in to Fox Publications to claim your free prize. Fox figured he’d just show up at a major soft drink bottler (like Coke or Pepsi) with a truckload of clipped coupons and scores of letters from soda shop owners demanding Kooba, and any bottler worth his salt would jump at the chance to make some bucks by creating and bottling Kooba. Fox and the bottler would split the profits and everything would be jake.

But nobody cared. In a market positively saturated with cola soft drinks, Kooba was just one among many, many choices. Not only did Fox never see a truckload of clipped coupons and letters, it didn’t even amount to a decent boxload. The Blue Beetle radio program never had an actual sponsor, since Kooba was nothing but smoke and mirrors, and the show died quickly. Kooba had a label design but Fox never settled on a color – the ads seldom show the label as the same color twice. In fact. all Fox really accomplished was to take valuable ad space away from legitimate advertisers in order to hawk his non-existent product.

It was a gutsy move on the part of Victor Fox, but he lost on this particular roll of the dice. Kooba Cola fizzled (if you’ll pardon the pun) and ultimately became just another wild story from the weird and wonderful Golden Age of Comics.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2012, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

Advertisements